An American Abroad

My Travel Essays & Articles

In the last two years, I’ve had various articles and essays published by the Village Voice of Ottawa Hills, my hometown’s monthly newspaper. They have graciously permitted me to repost those pieces here.

Your Miserable Life Will Soon Be Over

Mom-and-Pop Businesses and BMWs

Where English is a Pose

High Standards and Student Rights

Elephant Unemployment in Northern Laos

Taking the Road to Fuxian Lake

Expatriate Year

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Tunisia: A New Democracy is Born

When American Values Collide with Tunisian Society

Copyright Village Voice of Ottawa Hills. Used by permission.

Laos: Elephant Orphanage

Elephant unemployment is a real problem in Laos.

There used to be many, many elephants there — some say upwards of a million. Today there are about 1,600. Many of those that remain work in the logging industry, but now the logging industry is using trucks and other mechanized equipment to do their jobs. These elephants have not lived in the wild and thus cannot be turned loose. They become liabilities for the logging companies that own then, since it can cost $25 a day just to feed one. Sometimes they are killed. Often they are mistreated. And sometimes they are injured or killed by the land mines that are still buried in the Lao countryside from the days of the Vietnam War.

Elephant Village acquires those unemployed elephants, who are generally older animals in their 30s. Their website, which I’ve linked to here, has wonderful biographies of the elephants who live there, obviously written by people who know and love the animals.

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Sometimes the orphanage purchases elephants; sometimes it leases them from the logging companies. (Who knew you could lease an elephant?) Its mission is to rescue and rehabilitate elephants. The people who work there seem strongly dedicated to what they do. There is a veterinary medic who works there full time; elephant veterinarians sometimes fly in from Thailand.

I was able to walk among the elephants, to touch them, to feed them, and even to play with them.

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I felt very privileged to be there with such magnificent creatures. I was struck by how calm they were and how little noise they made when they walked. Their wrinkled skin makes them look older than they are. And maybe I am anthropomorphizing there, but their big expressive eyes seemed to contain a world-weary knowingness.

A few things about the orphanage troubled me — and let me make it clear that this is almost certainly more due to my ignorance than to anything else. One was that when the elephants were among us, they had chains that attached to one leg and to a tree or a post. I understand the reason for the chains, but the image was still disturbing. I also thought that the enclosure where I met Maxi, a one-year old baby who was born there last year, was pretty small for him and his mother, but again there are probably reasons for this that I don’t understand.

The biggest issue I had was that the orphanage gives tourists like me elephant rides. This is probably my most irrational concern, since carrying a few people is hardly a strain for animals who can carry much bigger loads. And what about all those horses I rode when I was younger? Yes, I understand that the orphanage needs tourist dollars to keep itself running and that rides are one way to generate those funds. And I also believe that jobs can be fulfilling to animals just as they can be to humans. But the idea of riding such intelligent, sensitive and endangered creatures seems demeaning to me — that is, it seems to demean the elephants, turning them into larger versions of the ponies that show up at kids’ birthday parties.

I wasn’t until I got there and saw all the orphanage’s operations that I decided to put my concerns aside and take a ride. Since rides are for two people (or two plus a child) and I was single, I was put with Anna, a lovely South African woman who works for L’Oreal in Thailand, and her three-year-old daughter, Mila. With the mahout (elephant caretaker/driver) riding on the elephant’s neck and giving commands via squeezes from his knees, we mounted up via a purpose-built platform. It was hard for me to escape the feeling that I was about to pitch forward into the mahout’s back, especially when our elephant walked down a steep hill, but I learned to live with that anxiety.

We walked down to the bank of the Nam Khan River — and then right into the river, which barely came up to our elephant’s chest. We crossed to the other side and stopped. The mahout asked me if I wanted to drive. I barely knew what I was agreeing to before he hopped off (an amazing feat in itself) and left me in charge of the elephant, Anna, and her daughter. Fortunately, the elephant knew the drill even if I didn’t, and we lumbered along at a slow pace while the mahout called incomprehensible instructions to me. At one point, though, we lurched to the left. I started to slip. I was riding bareback and there was nothing to grab onto — except Anna’s leg behind me. I immediately apologized and assured her I wasn’t being forward, just alarmed. She laughed and said that she’d been groped much worse. The mahout remounted, using the elephant’s trunk and ears as handholds, and we were off again.

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After the ride, we fed our elephant, who dexterously took the banana bunches we offered her with her trunk and curled them into her mouth.

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After lunch, we went to see the star of the orphanage, Maxi, the baby elephant. We took a longboat across the river to an island and there met him and his mother. Maxi is still nursing (which he will do until he is three). He never left his mother’s side, but he was definitely playful. He and I played the kind of tug games that you’d play with a puppy. Maxi would circle his trunk around my leg and pull me toward him. I would then try to pull away. I’d push him on his forehead and he’d push back. Every five minutes or so he suckled more milk from momma and then returned to the game. It was a lot of fun. And Mila, the three-year-old, was obviously entranced.

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After that, we went swimming at the pool in the eco-lodge that adjoins the orphanage. This was the first real pool I’d been in in over a year (hot spring pools in China aren’t proper pools in my book). We then said our goodbyes to the elephants and headed back to town.

Laos: Morning Alms-Giving

I had a long, late conversation about Buddhism with Manichan, the proprietress of the guesthouse where I was staying. She’s very devout, very sincere. Her face glowed as she spoke about the Buddha. She was a very good teacher and persuaded me and four other travelers to get up at 5:00 in the morning to witness the daily giving of alms to the monks.

And so it was that, bleary-eyed and uncaffeinated, the five of us found ourselves on the street that runs along the Mekong at about 5:35 to see a procession of monks troop by.

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A number of older women had laid prayer mats out on the sidewalk and were kneeling on them. They’d brought rattan containers of sticky rice, which they had presumably cooked themselves even earlier that morning. The monks all had large jars that rested in slings that went over one shoulder. As the monks passed by the women, each woman took some sticky rice with her fingers and placed some in each monk’s jar. The monks murmured something and then moved on to the next woman, who would add more rice, and so on.

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Manichan said that it is important that the women give the rice with their fingers, that the rice residue was a tactile reminder of the joy of giving.

We then shifted our location closer to the center of town, where a much larger group of monks, alms-givers and spectators had gathered.

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I couldn’t help but think of the monks I’d seen with Nikon DSLRs and Samsung phablets, but it was still a moving ceremony. I noticed, too, that some poor children trailed the monks, who gave some of their rice to them. Kind of a trickle-down charity.

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Laos: Luang Prabang, Part 2

I spent the day exploring Luang Prabang.

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Where the Mekong joins the Nam Khan River, I saw a bamboo bridge across the latter waterway and just knew I had to cross it. It was one of those crazy-rickety bamboo structures you’ve seen in every movie from Sorcerer to Apocalypse Now. I sat and studied it a while. A dog came safely across, but it was a very small dog. Then a Lao woman went across, but she was a very small woman. Finally two monks came across together, their saffron robes flapping in the morning breeze.

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I figured I weighed 1.75 monks and since two monks had just crossed, that gave me a safety margin of at least 0.25 monks.

But the bridge was guarded by a troll. As I approached it, a woman began shrieking at me, demanding that I pay 5,000 kip (about $0.63) to cross. I told her I had just seen two monks pass without paying, so why should I? “Monks no pay,” she insisted. “YOU pay.” I tried to convince her that I, too, was a monk, and that I’d even done time at a monastery in Kentucky. She was unpersuaded. Finally, with bemused irritation I forked over the kip — and the troll let me pass. It was a profoundly capitalist transaction conducted under a communist flag.

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The bridge swayed a little and the bamboo slats were awfully thin. Its surface was lashed to bamboo piers with thin twine. The slats felt squishy but held. And so I crossed. There wasn’t much to see on the other side — a decaying shrine and an ox skull were the highlights.

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After crossing and recrossing the bridge, I rented a little motorscooter and drove around to see what could be seen.

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I came across these cars, both of which had been restored by a Lao man who was justifiably proud of his work and asked if I wanted to buy them. I wish.

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There were other transportation options available.

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I walked through a food market and wondered what on earth is in the bowl in the center.

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I also found that in Luang Prabang you are never far from a Buddhist temple, by day and by night.

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Laos: Luang Prabang, Part 1

Luang Prabang would be the perfect place to live life in the slow lane, to write a book, or to cultivate an image as a mysterious eccentric. The buildings are French colonial with some tropical Asian touches, dating to the 1930s. They give the town a graceful, old-world feel and are the primary reason the place was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I can imagine white-suited Frenchmen getting out from vintage Citroëns and going into their cafés for déjeuner.

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I spent a fair amount of time at this place sitting just inside where I could watch people passing by, read, write and relax. That’s the little motorscooter I rented parked out front.

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The residential side streets were quiet and well-kept.

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Inviting riverside cafes were arrayed along the bank of the Mekong, places to stop in and relax over a Beer Lao and some delicious fish.

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This is a place I would very much like to come back to someday.

Laos: The Manichan Guesthouse

While I was in Luang Prabang, I stayed at The Manichan Guesthouse, a relaxing family-run hostelry on a quiet side street. It was a lovely place to rest, to meet other travelers, and to feel temporarily like family.

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My hosts were Peter Van de Velde, a Belgian in his early fifties, his lovely and sagacious Lao wife Manichan, their two beautiful children, and their new puppy, Jackie.

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One night, I discovered that Peter shares my taste in music when I heard Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” coming from the sound system in the courtyard. He and I and two of his Belgian buddies spent some good time picking classic rock hits out of his extensive music collection.

Before I checked out, I saw the official translation of the “Accommodation Regulation” that was posted to the back of the door to my room. It seemed too good not to share, so here it is with the diction and spelling as in original.

Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Peace Independent Democracy Prosperity

Police Department
Luang Prabang Provincial

Accommodation Regulation

Accommodating in hotels. Guesthouses and resorts for domestic and international tourists is to make sure that safety and security procedures in place to response in emergency cases for both domestic and international tourists who have accommodated and promote the Lao PDR tourism policy.

The Tourism police office has insured accommodation regulation for tourists and accommodation provider to implement and follow as below:

1. Tourists have to your own accommodation at 24:00 hrs (mid night)

2. When you are check in hotels, guesthouses and resorts, you have to show your passport to receptionist that you are stay.

3. Every time, when you are check in hotels, guesthouses and resorts you must register your belonging. If there are value things you have to give to receptionist to look after for you and both party have to sign for acknowledgment. If not, in case something lost if will be your own responsible.

4. Do not bring any illegal things come into hotels, guesthouses and resorts, if is not allow include ammunitions, except the official who have the permission only.

5. Do not any drugs, crambling or bring both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love.

6. Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostate and others into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction.

7. Please always lock your door when you are coming in and going out and bring your room key to receptionist every time when you are going out.

8. Checking out hotels, guesthouses and resorts at 1200 hrs (mid day) and please check your belonging before you leave.

9. Do not take the hotels, guesthouses and resort property form room, when you check out.

10. Please meet your guests at reception area, do not bring your friends or guests into the room before you got permission from hotels, guests and resorts staff or receptionist.

11. If you do not follow this accommodation regulation, you will be fight based on Lao PDR law.

12. This regulation take effect with official signature and stamp.

    Director of police department

Laos: On the Mekong River

I arrived in Luang Prabang pretty worn out from my trip to Cambodia and decided to take it easy for a few days — a vacation from my vacation. So I booked a long boat to take me north up the Mekong River to no place in particular. All I wanted was to watch the world drift by.

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This colorful boat is actually a floating gas station, supplying fuel to the smaller blue bloat in the foreground.

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We stopped at a cave notable for its 1,000 Buddha statues. Meh.

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The monks were more interesting than the Buddhas.

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We also docked at a village famous for its weaving and its moonshine.

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The people there offered me a few free glasses of their local hooch, of which they are justifiably proud.

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Then, once they had me slightly buzzed, they took me to some huts where women were busy at their looms making the most beautiful fabrics. The stratagem worked, and I bought cool silk and cotton pieces. Lao weaving looks almost unplaceable in terms of ethnicity and time, and yet is very distinctive.

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On the back to Luang Prabang, I saw four elephants on the far the Mekong — a bad time not to have my long lens mounted. Instead I had to content myself with looking at the distant mountains.

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Ready for Vacation

Today was our last day of work at Shane English Yuxi before the May Day vacation.


JJ (left), Silas (right) and I are in our professional vacation attire and ready to go. JJ is heading to Beijing. Silas is heading to Guangzhou. And I’m heading to Cambodia and Laos.

Cineprepping for Cambodia

I’ll be traveling to Cambodia and Laos at the end of this month. To get ready, I’ve held my own private film festival; call it cineprepping.

There aren’t very many movies about Laos. Fittingly, the only one I could find is called The Most Secret Place on Earth. There are, however, enough films about Cambodia to give me a sense of how that country is viewed in the Anglo-American pop cultural imagination. And now there are some native Cambodian entries in the genre which, naturally, have different foci.

The Cambodia movies focus primarily on the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979; secondly on the role of the American government in paving the way for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power; and thirdly on the failure of America and the European powers to provide humanitarian aid once Vietnam finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power. In short, it’s grim viewing and I’m going to need a vat of Zoloft and some Marx Brothers comedies to recover my usual good humor. “The feel-good movie of the year” has yet to be made about Cambodia.

All three of these aspects of recent Cambodian history are presented in Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, which was made by Anglo-Australian journalist John Pilger in 1978. Pilger makes no secret of where the responsibility for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million Cambodians lies. In describing his movie, he writes:

Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia’s liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold War and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia’s suffering was a willful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot’s demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children’s milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime.

Pilger’s documentary was never shown in the US, but after it aired in the UK, viewers there sent over ₤45 million in aid to Cambodian relief efforts. The film was later cited by the British Film Institute as one of the ten most influential documentary films of the twentieth century.

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) is a Jonathan Demme film of a Spalding Gray monologue performance.
It’s quirky and amusing on the surface, as Gray recounts his experience playing a small role in another Cambodia movie, The Killing Fields. But beneath Gray’s charming bemusement runs a real current of anger. He says:

This [American] bombing [of Cambodia] went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

No wonder, perhaps, that Gray committed suicide in 2004.

The movie that Gray played small role in, The Killing Fields (1984), is probably the most well-known of the Cambodian atrocity genre, but it hasn’t aged well. Perhaps we’re all inured to genocide and killing on an industrial scale by now.
But I think there’s more to it. The movie tries to use an interracial buddy story about American journalist Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian photographer Dith Pran as a framing device for the tale of how Dith Pran survived in and escaped from a Khmer Rouge concentration camp. Perhaps the Schanberg part of the story was put in to sell the movie at the box office; a film with an unknown Asian hero and no American good guy would’ve been a tough sell in 1984 (and still would be today). But the two stories don’t mesh well and the lack of chemistry between the Schanberg character (played by Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) is painful.

The most well-known Cambodia movies has to be Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s usually thought of as a Vietnam movie, but Cambodia is the protagonist’s destination, the location of the very heart of darkness. Click to play my favorite lines:

The story revolves around Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated but unorthodox American soldier who, after years of combat in Vietnam, goes both AWOL and crazy and sets himself up as the ruler of a tribe of murderous fanatics in the Cambodian jungle, where they live as if they were back in the stone age.
After watching all the other movies in the Cambodian genre, it’s hard not to see Kurtz as a stand-in for the Khmer Rouge itself.

There are five common themes running through these four films which I think sum up how Westerners view Cambodia today.

(1) Cambodia is a secret, mysterious, and bizarre place. (2) Its people are unfathomably brutal. (3) Westerners aren’t supposed to be there. (4) Westerners bring war with them when they arrive and (5) leave destruction and starvation behind when they leave.

Western filmmakers seem to have lost interest in Cambodia in the 21st century and have moved on to other atrocity stories. One Cambodian filmmaker, however, has started to explore his country’s recent history and social psychology.

L’Image Manquante (2013) (English title: The Missing Picture) reflects on the fact that there are few existing photos of life in the Khmer Rouge labor camps. A visual history of the most traumatic event in the country’s history is absent. There are, of course, officially produced pictures, such as films of Pol Pot addressing a gathering of nervous Khmer Rouge officials or visiting an artificially enthusiastic group of Cambodian people. These clips, which are included in the film, are at least a start in the process of trying to explain how and why the Khmer Rouge exterminated between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.

To compensate for the missing pictures of life under the Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Rithy Panh illustrates his personal narrative with oddly empathic clay figurines, which are sculpted and painted in great detail and set into elaborate dioramas.
Missing Picture
The effect simultaneously distances the view from the literal horrors of the atrocities of the time while forcefully driving home their emotional effects. The process of carefully creating these figurines seems to give the filmmakers and the viewers some way to comprehend and make peace with the past.

The other native Cambodian film, S-21: La Machine de Mort de Khmère Rouge (2003), is also directed by Rithy Panh. It uses a technique I first saw used in The Act of Killing (2012), a documentary about the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s. In both movies, the filmmaker coaxes the murderers, torturers, thugs, and jailers of years ago to re-enact their actions for the camera. Surprisingly, the war criminals seem very eager to perform.

In this documentary, Rithy Panh brings two survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison — a former high school that was used as a detention and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge — back to the premises, which is now a genocide museum.
S21 - regulations
There they confront some of their guards and torturers. It’s a good set-up, but viewers who are seeking explanation, catharsis, understanding, or remorse will come away disappointed. The former Khmer Rouge jailers appear to have walled themselves off, psychologically and morally, from the atrocities committed by their younger selves, and Rithy Panh cannot penetrate their defenses. I was left with little doubt that if a 21st century version of the Khmer Rouge ever came to power, they would find plenty of willing partners among some of the people I saw in this film.

(By the way, I’d love to get my eyes on Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2012), which sounds a little more upbeat than all the movies with Death, Killing and Apocalypse in their titles, but I can’t find a copy to download. Would any of my readers care to shoot me a copy?)